Latin in Rochester

From the University of Rochester Campus Times:

Fishing through a sea of scrap papers on his desk, Nicholas Gresens, a professor in the Department of Religion and Classics, found a torn, graying index card. Its blurred pencil marks read, “sic cum inferiore vivas quemadmodum tecum superiorem velis vivere.”

Roman orator and philosopher Seneca penned the quote in a letter to a friend over 2,000 years ago. Today, it’s one of Gresens’ favorite mottos.

“It’s kind of like, ‘do unto others as you would do unto yourself,’ but it’s stronger,” he said. “That one implies equality, this one implies something deeper. It means, ‘treat even people who are inferior to you as you would treat yourself. Don’t treat slaves as slaves. One day, they’ll be superior to you.’”

Gresens’ ability to piece together a jumble of foreign words, form a coherent phrase and expand its construction into a philosophical concept is rare, but not obsolete.

In the Rochester City School District, two of the 26 secondary schools offer Latin, but the programs are dwindling. Yet, despite education cutbacks and some students’ decisions to discard the language from their schedules, the tongue refuses to die.

That’s because of people like senior Andrew Cirillo. He started learning Latin last spring in preparation for divinity school this coming fall. He also knows Italian, Spanish, Greek and Hebrew, and he wants to study French and German before heading into priesthood.

In Rochester, other students younger than Cirillo are not so fortunate. If they don’t attend the School of the Arts (SOTA) or Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School Commencement Academy (Wilson) — two of the highest-performing schools in the city — they cannot take Latin.

But even Latin courses at those two schools are nearing elimination.

The drop is due primarily to budget cuts. Several city schools do not have much money to begin with, and they must first address the U.S. Department of Education’s cries to emphasize math and science. Electives such as foreign languages are expensive for schools, and administrators who cut Latin think students will not suffer without it because they believe the language is a mere frill.

Not just Latin, but all foreign languages in the Rochester City School District, are in danger. For the first time since 1989, the community lacks a director of world languages. Principal of Rochester’s newly-founded Young Women’s College Prep Charter School (YWCP) Jennifer Gkourlias held the position a couple of years ago. She attributes the shrinking number of classes to how difficult it is to find certified staff and to the challenge of fitting the subject into students’ schedules.

Some of her students listen to rumors that Latin is not as important or worthy as spoken languages are, furthering its negative reputation by believing it is a luxurious language only geared toward college-bound students. The results: Three-fifths and one-third of the students taking Latin at SOTA and Wilson respectively dropped it last year.

The decline reflects a broader issue: a shift from education for the sake of education toward education for the sake of a job or career. Half a dozen Latin instructors in Rochester agree that administrators cut the language from secondary schools in part because it’s not practical and doesn’t mandate immediate, professional payoff.

“It’s a signal that education has turned from its roots — a tradition that has produced successful inventors, thinkers and statesmen,” Gresens said. “Reforms are fine, changes are fine as new fields of study emerge, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the old, tried and true.”

Administrators are threatening Latin’s existence, but even truer is the language’s resilience. In Rochester, the ancient tongue endures educational cuts because of a small group of passionate scholars. Jill Crooker, a College Board advisor and Latin instructor in her 25th year of teaching, is one of them.

“If the teacher is enthusiastic, you can sustain the program,” Gkourlias said. “Programs live and die with the teachers.”

Gkourlias advocates Latin as the foundation for other foreign languages. She created a curriculum at YWCP in which students take Latin in seventh grade and another foreign language in eighth.

Thanks to Latin scholars like Gkourlias and Gresens, student interest in the subject is on the rise. Gresens had to split Elementary Latin I into two sections last spring and needed to again this spring.

Although many UR students don’t have room in their schedules for Latin as a major or minor — an average of three students have specialized in classics each year for the past ten years — they crave at least a taste of it.

“I think Latin gives students a whole new different way of thinking and discussing language,” Mario Morales ’11 said. “It’s more systematic — inflection-based grammar is so different from the common auxiliary-based systems of English that it forces students to practically develop a whole new brain for it.”

Morales claims to owe his knowledge of Spanish, Ancient Greek, German, Russian and Arabic to the deep understanding of language he acquired through studying Latin.

But what about English? Since various Latin morphemes — small units of meaning — compose English words, the ancient tongue enables students to firmly grasp grammar, develop vocabulary and write concisely.

“Latin taught me to think about nuance, word choice and fluency in a different way,” Morales said. “‘House’ doesn’t feel the same way ‘domicile’ does. ‘Feeling’ and ‘sentiment’ are synonyms, but not the same thing. ‘Art’ and ‘skill’ have entirely different meanings these days… It’s safe to say the way I write now is mostly due to my classicist training.”

Yet classicists are not the only ones who encounter Latin. Do you watch “Jeopardy!” or do crossword puzzles? Ever researched the origin of UR’s motto? Have you read the Bible or seen a spelling bee on TV? If you have, you know what I mean.

It seems as though the language isn’t going anywhere fast, even if teenagers can’t learn Latin in Rochester secondary schools.

“Latin has been around for over 2,000 years, and it will continue,” Crooker said. “That is testimony to its vigor.”

Latin lingers on. (Campus Times)

Baylor’s Latin Day

From the Baylor Lariat … this seems like a major outreach strategy; how many Classics departments do this sort of thing?

An ancient Roman comedy and other Latin activities will kick off the weekend for a group of high school students celebrating ancient Roman culture. Baylor’s Classics Department is having its ninth annual Latin Day from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. today.

Undergraduate students will provide Latin-themed activities for about 200 high schoolers from across Texas, but the day can be enjoyed by anyone, said Dan Hanchey, assistant professor of classics.

A comedic play written by Plautus and directed by Dr. David White, professor in the classics department, is expected to be the most popular event, Hanchey said.

Alexandria, La., senior Stephen Margheim is playing the lead in this year’s play.

His character Pseudolus is a tricky slave who hoodwinks a slave dealer to woo the woman his master has fallen in love with, Margheim said.

There is also a Broadway play and a movie, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” based on the story, he said.

The play is in English and will show at 1:15 p.m. today in the Marrs-McLean Science Building, room 100. The play is free and open to the public.

The events of the annual Latin Day are put on by students in the classics department, but not necessarily classics majors, Margheim said.

Students range from freshmen to fifth-year seniors.

The play does not require auditions. Students can read through the script and choose roles based on their personal level of commitment and how much time they have to learn lines and practice.

“It’s really easygoing, and it’s tons of fun to get on stage as a collegiate student,” Margheim said.

Another event will include viewing Latin-related advertisements created by high school students for a contest. Faculty members will vote for a winner.

This year, one of those advertisements is based on the popular Dos Equis commercials featuring “the most interesting man in the world,” but changed to “the most interesting language in the world,” Hanchey said.

There will also be a Certamen competition, modeled off Jeopardy. Certamen means ‘competition.’

“It’s always funny because students and teachers will take it pretty seriously. There will be fierce competition,” Hanchey said.

He said there is also a national Certamen championship, and one member on the recent national championship team participated in Baylor’s Latin Day Certamen as a student two years ago.

The day will include Latin songs for students to learn, a tour of campus and lunch at Penland for the high schoolers.

Hanchey and Margheim agreed that Latin Day is beneficial to everyone who participates.

“It’s definitely helpful for the kids,” Margheim said. “They get to see that there are normal human beings who take Latin seriously, and [who] are not massive nerds and not weird. And for Baylor, it’s a chance to have our own influence to revitalize high school Latin programs, and people generally enjoy it.”

Hanchey said he believes there is a value in studying Latin because of the wide range of topics involved.

“You get a chance to study culture, history, politics, religion, art, language and literature all at once,” he said, “and so much of our culture is based on ancient Rome.”

But the classics department wants to show the high schoolers more than just Latin language and history, Hanchey said.

“We want to educate the students about Latin, about Baylor, about Baylor classics, about what experience they could have if they came here,” Hanchey said. “We also want them to have fun and see there’s a community feeling in studying Latin.”